There must have been 50,000 people surrounding us at Camp Randall Stadium. I looked from the center of the 50 yard line up at the large crowd. Like the eleven others standing in a perfect row next to me, I was wearing a red and white outfit provided by our University. One by one we were introduced to the vast audience. When it was my turn, the announcer boomed, “Next on our UW-Madison Homecoming Court is …Meg Weinbaum from Urbana, Illinois!” I waved my single finger on my right hand high in the air and then turned around and waved to the other side as the crowd cheered.
It all began the month before. Through my officer position in my sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, I had become eligible for the University’s Homecoming Court. After many grueling interviews by UW-Madison Alums and Faculty, I was selected. Although it at first sounded a bit silly, the month of service proved rewarding. We volunteered visiting the elderly and spent time with children in the University of Wisconsin Hospital, among other memorable events. The day before the game we also had the privilege of visiting Governor Tommy Thompson at his office in the Capital and having dinner with the school’s Chancelor, Donna Shalala at her home.
At the time, I was so incredibly proud to have been selected to Court, viewing it as one of my more boast-worthy achievements. In high school, although I definitely had friends, I was never a candidate for prom queen or anything like that. This was a new and welcome experience. However, in those days, I was still far from flaunting my difference. For example, when we paraded through town riding in a convertible, I would barely raise my hand to wave, feeling awkward. Although I had waved to the crowd at the stadium, the people were so far away that I couldn’t really feel their scrutiny. After a while, however, I began to have mixed feelings about being selected. After all, I wasn’t chosen by my fellow students, but by adults, which is far less gratifying. At that age, we just want to be liked by our peers. It is an insecurity that can stay with us for years, unless we’re fortunate enough to grow out of it.
I have to admit to something, and you may very well disagree with me. I have struggled with Whitney Kropp’s decision to attend her Homecoming ceremony. Kropp, a Michigan high school student who had been bullied in the past, was chosen surprisingly by her classmates to be on her school’s homecoming court as a prank. Initially surprised to learn she had been nominated, she soon felt humiliated and betrayed when she found out it was all a joke. “People had bullied on me, I guess, for my looks, how I did my hair, how I dress, my height, so I guess they thought, you know, maybe someone that is different is someone that’s an easy target,” Kropp said in an interview late last month.
When word spread throughout her community, the adults came out in full force. As Kropp’s mom put it, “You want to protect your kids, and you feel angry and mad at what has happened, but at the same time the outpouring to help her has been beyond what was expected.” A salon owner donated services to cut, color and style Kropp’s hair, and other local businesses paid for her dinner, gown, shoes and tiara for the dance. Rather than staying home wallowing in self pity, Kropp chose to attend the ceremony. Afterwards, Kropp told reporters she was glad to remain on the court.
On the one hand, I am happy for Whitney Kropp—that she had her day in the sun and felt special. Thanks to significant adult and media intervention, Kropp was able to feel the love from the community. In fact, it all sounds sort of clichéd —like in those bad movies from the eighties where a girl who was picked-on in high school, has a make-over and then suddenly everyone likes her. Initially, this all sounded like a sweet story– until I read another quote from Kropp after the ceremony. “I am so overwhelmed,” she said. “I am so happy…the school is fantastic, they treated me so well.” Kropp’s appearance was met with thunderous applause and camera flashes from her fellow students. She continued, “Stand up for what you believe in, and go with your heart and your gut. That’s what I did and look at me now. I’m just as happy as can be.”
It is hard for me to swallow that the same students that voted for Knopp out of mockery all of a sudden had a change of heart. What those fellow high school peers did was cruel, plain and simple. It is the epitome of what someone, especially someone young, with a difference fears the most—being made fun of. But when you are a teen, unless you are part of the “in-crowd,” you invariably feel different, whatever your exterior. A quick media bonanza and a new fancy dress aside, did Knopp’s new style change the way any of those kids that voted for her now view her? Did she really prove anything? While she certainly had the support of her community and those that tuned in nationwide, I personally don’t think so.
Here is why: The fairytale ending to Knopp’s story doesn’t ring true to me. Although the headlines read things like, “The Joke’s on Them,” it simply does not make sense that these nasty peers would suddenly now have a change of heart. Granted, in deciding to go ahead and attend the ceremony, Knopp copped an “I’ll show them” attitude that is to be commended. But let’s be real about this. None of those teens that voted for her cared for her before the ceremony, and as lovely as she very well may be, none truly care about her now. My gut tells me that if this story did not draw national attention, the same people in Knopp’s class would have continued to play out the joke. I suspect by next Spring she might be on the short list to be voted for Prom Queen.
Knopp is still young and perhaps I’m a bit jaded, but I believe that our time is better spent appreciating the people who care about us and not chasing attention or approval from those who don’t. So I ask myself, what if, instead of showing up to the Homecoming ceremony, Knopp found the courage to spend that evening surrounded by her loving family or anyone that truly cared for her? What if she had concluded that her happiness was not dependent on whether she proved something to people that are not worthy of her time? What if she learned to experience life on what I call “the other side,” where confidence and happiness comes from within? In that case, she would not have needed the community’s support or the free makeover. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood ending, but it would be far more satisfying.